Illinois’ problems becoming noticeable

The Illini defense was not playing at the level it wanted to Saturday.

Illinois gave up 464 yards to Washington in a 44-19 loss — the first of the season for the Illini (2-1).

The Illinois defense showed promise in the first two games, making big plays in big moments — Taylor Barton’s two turnovers against Western Kentucky were particular highlights early on — but the Illini showed shades of last season against Washington.

“We didn’t stop the run as well as we needed to,” defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. “As a defense, we’ve got to do a better job of just making sure that we’re tackling and not giving up extra yards.”

The rushing defense finds itself ranked last in the Big Ten after giving up 245 yards on the ground against the Huskies. The passing defense is still hanging around the middle of the conference, ranked seventh, but has given up an average of 231 yards in the first three games.

Illini head coach Tim Beckman said he’s concerned about the team’s first-half performance, allowing 38 points to Washington in the first two quarters Saturday.

“Second-half statistics are unbelievable for us,” Beckman said. “Offensively, we’ve moved the football and defensively we’ve stopped people, but it comes down to what you’re doing in the first half and we’re not being successful in the first half.”

Illinois has given up 61 points in the first half this season, while only allowing 34 in the second half.

Kicking the issue

Illinois placekicker Taylor Zalewski is not having the start he wanted this season. He has made only one field goal on three attempts — a first quarter attempt Saturday bounced in off the upright from 25 yards out.

Zalewski’s field goal kicking has concerned Beckman, who said there will once again be competition for the starting spot this week between Zalewski and his sophomore backup David Reisner.

“We’ll make that decision on Thursday,” Beckman said. “There’s still too many questions when we stick Taylor out there.”

Beckman said the biggest issue with Zalewski is his consistency, having been performing well in practice but not in games.

“I’ve seen him do it,” Beckman said. “He just needs to focus. He’s got the capabilities to be as good as there is in the country, but he’s got to hone in on his skills.”

Inconsistency on offense

Geronimo Allison had a career game on Saturday, just the third of his Illini career.

The junior college transfer is already averaging 100 yards per game with 16 receptions. Allison hauled in two touchdowns Saturday, including a diving catch in the back of the end zone.

“He made some outstanding catches,” Beckman said. “We all have to remember that was only his third football game. I think his game will get better and better.”

Lunt said Allison’s will to battle back after a near injury was a great confidence boost for the offense, which continued to show signs of clicking despite two fumbles and an interception. Lunt threw for 230 yards and two touchdowns. Both touchdowns and 160 of those yards were thrown to Allison.

“It was really positive seeing the guys fight and just not give up,” Lunt said.

But despite the productivity through the air, Illinois’ rushing attack has struggled — its highest production being 78 yards on the ground against Youngstown State.

“Our backs aren’t hitting the hole where it’s at and I think it’s the offensive line not sustaining their blocks,” Beckman said.

Injuries along the offensive line are contributing to a lack of blocking and opposing pressure on the pass rush.

An injury to junior Pat Flavin has shaken up the offensive line, forcing senior tackle Michael Heitz to move to right tackle, and giving sophomore Joe Spencer the start at center.

The Illini offensive line allowed eight sacks in its first three games — including six on Saturday.

“There were a lot of yards left out there in the running game,” offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said. “We’re just a little bit off.”

Sean can be reached at spneuma2 and @neumannthehuman.